Harvest options for forages

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Harvesting quality feedstuffs can sometimes be a challenge.  It can be especially challenging in late spring or early summer when too often there isn’t enough time between rain events to get forages completely cured and dry enough to be baled as dry hay. A number of hay producers have explored alternatives to baled hay as a way to complete harvest without needing to deal with rained on forage.

One alternative is harvesting forage as higher moisture haylage.  The largest single advantage is that the hay only needs to wilt to about 35 to 45% dry matter; it does not have to completely cure.  That means a shorter time interval between cutting and harvest and reduced risk of losing forage nutrients due to rain.  Also there should be less leaf shattering by chopping at a higher moisture content which should result in higher quality, more valuable forage. 

Of course there are some tradeoffs to harvesting forage as haylage.  The most obvious is that different equipment is needed compared to baling hay. A producer would need to either purchase or hire the necessary chopping, hauling, and storage equipment unless the operation already had that equipment on hand.  Also, more labor may be required.  For instance, there may be a need for one person running the chopping equipment, one hauling away from the field, plus one more running either the bagger or packing tractor.  Harvesting the forage as baled hay could probably be accomplished with just one person.  One factor to keep in mind, however, is that once the haylage crop is harvested and stored there wouldn’t be any additional labor required.  Baled hay would still need to be loaded, hauled and stacked before the forage could be fed. A producer also needs to keep in mind that moving haylage involves handling a significant amount of water. This does limit marketing alternatives if the producer decides to sell rather than feed as dry hay is easier to transport and more marketable.

Just as with baled hay, proper storage techniques are necessary to prevent excessive losses before feeding.  In the case of haylage, keeping oxygen out of the bag, bunker or silo is critical to keeping dry matter losses to a minimum.  It’s very important to sufficiently pack the pile to eliminate air pockets and to increase the density of the bunker.  Bunker silos or piles need to be covered to prevent a layer of spoiled feedstuffs.  Also, bags and bunker covers alike need to be checked during the storage period to make sure that there aren’t any holes in the plastic to let in air.

Another hay method that is becoming more popular is to use a specialized baler to create high moisture bales, or baleage.  In this system the bale is entirely covered with a plastic wrap to exclude oxygen.  This method eliminates the need for a separate chopper and hauling system, while still allowing a producer to harvest at higher moisture levels.  The plastic wrapping does present some challenges.  First, these bales need to be handled carefully to avoid creating holes and allowing air to contact the forage.  Second, there would be a significant amount of plastic to be disposed of with each bale.  A producer should consider how that waste would be disposed before adopting this system.

Adopting either of these higher moisture harvest methods would lead to some additional expenses for plastic wrap, fuel, labor etc.  The hay producer needs to evaluate that added cost with the potential for improved forage quality and determine if alternatives to dry baled hay make economic sense for their business.

Source: Warren Rusche


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